iTunes 2 ROCKS!

iPod looks cool, it has nifty features, and I'm sure it will do at least reasonably well in the marketplace. It was not the announcement that interested me most on Tuesday (10/23/01), although it was largely responsible for what did. I have been a long time Soundjam MP user (Actually I think it became my MP3 player of choice the day it was released). Frankly I think it's the best freakin MP3 software ever written. At the same time I think OS X is the best freakin operating system ever written and thus am doing my best to switch over to it. Casady and Greene had released a version of Soundjam MP for the OS X public beta that doesn't work so well under OS X release (10.0.x or 10.1). Shortly after this release Apple purchased Soundjam MP from C&G and C&G ceased development (apparently some or all of their Sound Jam development staff went to Apple anyhow). This concerned me a little bit as I wasn't sure what Apple would do with their recently acquired asset, I only hoped that this didn't mean the end to my favorite MP3 player.

A couple months later Apple unveiled iTunes, their re-incarnation of Soundjam MP. I eagerly downloaded it to see development work Apple had done on my favorite MP3 player. When I started running it I noticed a couple of nice additions such as it's ability to auto search my hard drive for MP3's and add them to my library. Very soon after opening the application I came away disappointed though. I couldn't use Realizer to enhance my MP3's, I couldn't use my favorite visualizer plug-ins, it's play list layout bugged me, I could no longer use all the skins I had converted from WinAMP skins, etc. To make matters worse Apple had taken what was a very high performance very multi-task friendly MP3 player and made it an absolute performance hog.

Apple has made a few minor releases since then that have solved most of my issues, at least to the point where I used iTunes under OS X as my primary MP3 playback software. It still lacked many features I desired, but it was the best overall MP3 playback software for OS X as far as I could tell.

Along with iPod, Apple announced iTunes 2, to be released concurrently. The biggest feature in Apple's eyes was that it supported the features of iPod, or at least that's the way they made it sound. I didn't really care about that, but I was very eager to get my hands on iTunes 2 to see if it had come anywhere nearer my beloved Soundjam MP!
Note that the machine I am running this on is a 400 MHz iMac DV SE (99) with 256 MB of RAM.

I'm pleased to inform you that while it does not have every feature built into Soundjam, iTunes 2 is much closer and even adds a few nifty features that Soundjam lacked. Apple's iTunes development team has clearly been working very hard on this.

First up is performance. Wow. Apple did some heavy work in this category. With iTunes I never really had very much trouble getting the audio to drop out for a couple seconds, in fact if I did much of anything, even sometimes just surf the web, it would have drop outs. I first tried just listening to iTunes while I surfed the web, going to some graphics and flash heavy sites. Played fine. Next I decided to see if I could do some rendering in Bryce without messing up iTunes. After launching Bryce I made a simple land formation at the edge of some water and a sky. I told Bryce to render. I enjoyed glorious music. Mkay, so iTunes 2 was going to play tough... I stopped the render and imported several models ranging from very simple to near photo realistic collected from sites such as 3D Cafe. I told Bryce to render. No impact on iTunes 2. So, I figured I'd do some other stuff while Bryce was rendering in the background. I launched Classic and then launched Adobe Photoshop. I opened up a file that was about 50 MB that I happened to have laying around. I selected the entire document and did a radial blur. I set the amount to 32 and made it a best quality spin blur. Photoshop went to work on that. Needed a file compressed that I was planning on sending someone later, so I cracked open StuffIt Deluxe and started compressing a couple hundred megs of files. Rockin the whole way. I thought I might like to have a DivX playing in the background now that we have a semi decent DivX CODEC for OS X, so I launched Quicktime and opened a 352x240 DivX file, doubled it's size and hit play.

Let's recount: I am rendering a somewhat complex Bryce scene, doing a radial blur on a large file in Photoshop via Classic, compressing a couple hundred megs with StuffIt, and am playing a movie that is using a CODEC that at best on Mac is demanding, and that movie is playing it's own MP3 audio on top of what iTunes is playing and it doesn't miss a beat.

This was the last straw. At this point I was absolutely determined to bring iTunes 2 to it's knees. So I quickly launched all the 20 or so other programs in my dock all one after another as fast as I could. A chaotic mess of windows were being opened by this vast array of software. Mac OS X was absolutely crippled... The cursor lost tracking more than a few times, the dock lost responsiveness, there were graphical glitches galore from new windows all trying simultaneously to draw content in themselves (and this is all on top of all the processes mentioned in the last paragraph still running). That smug little program kept rocking away ("When it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel was just a freight train comin your wayyyyyyyyyaaayyyy!" happened to be the particular lyric that was playing. :-)

I think what I'm trying to say here is that iTunes 2 performance was flawless and it didn't even seem to slow down the other tasks I was doing (though those tasks managed to slow each other down). I gave up, bitterly defeated by excellent software engineering. Performance was also improved with visualizers, though they still seem a little more sluggish than with SoundJam.

What about iTunes 2's new features? By default the new cross-fading feature is turned on. Totally caught me by surprise the first couple times I heard it happen. I haven't turned it off yet, I and I don't think I will, it makes the transition between tracks quite pleasant. In the preferences you can adjust how many seconds the transition takes, but the default seems about the perfect speed to fade the first song out and the second song in. In the same preference window there is a slider for you to adjust the "Sound Enhancer" from low to high (I assume this is the "Apple-engineered Sound Enhancer for richer audio playback" mentioned on Apples iTunes 2 site). I think this does something along the lines of what the Arboretum Realizer plug-in does in terms of attempting to recreate data that is lost in the MP3 encoding. Right about in the center seems to be about the perfect setting for most songs. One feature I think Apple should build into iTunes is something along the lines of Phillips Magnavox "Smart Sound" feature, so that tracks encoded at differing volume levels all get somewhat evened out.

The built in graphic equalizer is well written and it's 22 EQ presets all make different songs sound particularly good, but after playing with them extensively I have found that the "Rock" and "Classical" settings are the ones that produce the best equalization among an eclectic array of musical styles. Actually I've noticed this is true with most equalizers that have presets. There's really very little reason to create your own equalizer sets as the presets it comes with seem to hit all the most useful combinations, but at least the option is there.

CD burning worked about as expected with my Yamaha 8x8x24 FireWire CD burner. The only thing that was odd is that by default the iTunes 2 preferences say that they will burn at "Maximum" speed, but it reported that it was only burning at 6x on my 8x CD burner. I manually set it to 8x and tried again. It still wrote at 6x (or at least that's what it claimed and it seemed accurate.) Weird.

One feature that would be really cool (though I guess I understand why iTunes 2 doesn't do this) is the ability to burn CD's with the cross-fades intact. If nothing else it should still cross-fade the tracks when you are playing them back off of the CD in iTunes 2 if you have the option turned on. But it doesn't. Oh well, not a big deal I suppose.

I must say that overall I am quite impressed with iTunes 2. The only thing that really seems missing from it that I had with Soundjam MP is skins, and the iTunes interface isn't bad, so it's not too big a turn off, but it seems it should be a standard feature in a piece of MP3 playback software that in almost all other respects is one of the most advanced out there. Nevertheless it's compelling feature set and performance make iTunes 2 one of, if not the, best MP3 playback programs out there.


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